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Piece by Piece in School Construction

Permanent modular buildings can meet school construction needs.

The need for efficient building solutions in the student housing market is more necessary than ever as enrollment rates continue to increase and as campuses are becoming more cost and environmentally conscious, seeking innovative, affordable and sustainable living options for students. One industry that is stepping up to the challenge is permanent modular construction incorporating BIM software, lean construction techniques, and streamlined, sustainable building methods to meet school and university needs.

The Construction Process

Permanent modular buildings are 60 to 90 percent completed offsite in a controlled environment, and transported and permanently affixed at the final building site. This method of construction often is integrated with site construction, leveraging the resources and advantages of each type of construction.

Unique to modular construction, while modules are being assembled in a controlled offsite setting, site work is occurring at the same time. Also unique to modular is the ability to simultaneously construct a building's floors, walls, ceilings, rafters and roofs. During site construction, walls cannot be set until floors are in position, and ceilings and rafters cannot be added until walls are erected. On the other hand, with modular construction, walls, floors, ceilings and rafters are all built at the same time, then brought together in the same factory to form a building.

The Advantages

The modular construction process can enable modular buildings to be completed 30 to 50 percent faster than site construction and minimize exposure to construction site risks. The time savings the process offers helps education institutions meet tight deadlines and see a faster return on investment.

Modular buildings also are built to meet or exceed the same building codes as site construction. Also, since modular is a construction process, not a particular product or building type, modular student housing can be constructed to any architectural and customer specifications. Modular buildings can be built to blend in with any existing campus building and can be virtually indistinguishable from buildings built with site construction. Permanent modular buildings also can be constructed to as many stories as building codes allow.

Modular buildings can contribute to LEED requirements in any category site construction can, and in some categories, can even provide an advantage. Because of the factory-controlled environment, modular manufacturers can provide energy conservation, indoor air quality, minimized waste and less site impact than site construction, qualifying their projects for credits in the categories of Indoor Environmental Quality, Energy & Atmosphere, Materials and Resources and Sustainable Sites (

Case Studies

Modular construction was a building solution for student housing developer, Victoria Hall Ltd. at the University of Wolverhampton, England, to solve overcrowding and urban site constraints and to meet a tight deadline with a minimal budget. The project is in fact the world’s tallest building built with offsite construction methods, standing at 25 stories and consisting of 805 modules.

Each module has its own structural-steel frame designed to carry the load of modules above it. The modules also include concrete floors, drywall walls and ceilings, and a fire-rated envelope. All modules were pre-fitted with plumbing, fixtures, finishes, cabinets and even furnishings before shipping. A rain-screen facade was applied over factory-installed waterproofing. The project would have taken at least 24 months using site construction, but modular construction enabled the building team to complete the buildings in 27 weeks, in time for students to start fall classes.

Because of increased enrollment, Ferrum College, Ferrum, Va., was in need of an all-brick Colonial structure ready to house 117 students for the 2011 fall semester. It needed a modern, energy-efficient building with traditional design features to blend with its historical campus. The residence hall also had to accommodate 120 students on budget in 120 days.

The completed project includes 27,000 square feet and 62 rooms. The structure has porches in front and rear. All three floors have large common areas for study and entertainment, and there is also a two-room suite for a residence hall proctor.

Design features include detailed windows, columns and an all-brick exterior that coincides with the school’s existing building architecture. There were no academic or groundkeeping interruptions because most of the construction was completed in the modular manufacturing facility. The new structure is energy-efficient and meets ENERGY STAR certifications. In addition, only 12 percent of waste from the project went to the landfill; 88 percent was recycled.

The Modules at TempleTown, Philadelphia, is a multi-unit project that combines permanent modular construction and site construction with contemporary design, green sensibilities and the designation of what might be the largest modular-constructed LEED for Homes project in the United States. The five-story apartment project includes 60,000 sq. ft. of modular space and is situated near the campus of Philadelphia’s Temple University.

The residence halls include design-driven living space and cutting-edge amenities with major features such as light-filled common spaces, generously sized operable windows, environmentally sound finishes, and a green roof terrace that assists in the facilitation of a 50 percent-reduction water runoff. The building also is architecturally distinct, but it doesn’t stick out, and it houses a lot of students without imposing on the neighborhood. By using modular construction, the builder was able to shorten the construction schedule, decrease costs and reduce the amount of waste on the project. The project was designed, bid, manufactured and occupied within 11 months.

Three new residence halls at Bryn Athyn College feature all the design aesthetics of campus buildings built by traditional construction methods. The buildings are wrapped in cut stone, and each contains six apartment-style suites, ceramic-tiled floors in common areas, quartz countertops and above all, “old world” charm.

The steel-framed building with pre-poured concrete floors offers the permanence and performance of conventional construction. The modular builder’s innovative use of “faux” chimneys on each building housed the lower- floor ADA-compliant laundry room and carries the mechanicals from the basement to the third-floor suites.

Modularizing the false chimneys off-site, and pre-building the dormers helped reduce the on-site time and cost as well as disruption to the campus. Each room or area of the residences have ENERGY STAR rated P-Tach unit heat pumps installed. Insulation is a combination of spray foam in the roof truss and floor areas, and fiberglass with liquid spray-applied vapor barriers for the walls, exceeding most residential standards. These buildings were completely built together at the plant, including stairwells, ensuring fit and precision alignment of the modular components so site time was minimized. The three-story buildings also comprise a total of 24,342 square feet and were completed in just more than eight months.

Hardiman is the executive director of the Modular Building Institute (MBI), the international nonprofit trade association for commercial modular construction.

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